In March 1982, parked in a remote area of swamp forest in northwestern Tasmania, wildlife ranger Hans Naarding was asleep in his vehicle. When he woke up at 2am, it was dark and raining heavily. Out of habit, he switched on his torch and scanned the surrounding area.
“As I swept the beam around, it came to rest on a large thylacine, standing side-on some 6-7m distant,” he later wrote. “I decided to examine the animal carefully before risking movement. It was an adult male in excellent condition with 12 black stripes on a sandy coat. Eye reflection was pale yellow. It moved only once, opening its jaw and showing its teeth.”
When Naarding reached for his camera bag after several minutes, the movement spooked the creature, and it slunk away into the undergrowth.
The encounter was kept secret while an intense search for thylacines was initiated in the surrounding area, but nothing was ever discovered. Naarding’s thylacine, it seemed, had vanished into the night.
There was just one problem with this remarkable sighting. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world authority on rare and threatened species, the thylacine – a dog-sized predatory marsupial also known as the Tasmanian tiger – was extinct in 1982. The last known individual died in 1936 in Hobart Zoo; the last reliable sighting of a wild one dates back to 1933. The species died out sometime after the mid-1960s.
Thylacines had long since disappeared from mainland Australia when British colonists arrived in the late 18th century, with an estimated 2,000-4,000 remaining on the island of Tasmania. But, as a perceived threat to livestock, their days were numbered. The introduction of commercial sheep farming in the 1820s triggered a brutal persecution programme, culminating in a government bounty payment scheme that ran from 1888 to 1909. This probably reduced thylacine numbers to the point of no return.
Nevertheless, many Tasmanians have refused to accept that the species has disappeared. Some have spent years searching obsessively for it. To say these quests are akin to a belief in UFOs or Bigfoot may be unfair, but they certainly attract the more extreme fringe of the cryptozoology spectrum. By and large, academics and wildlife conservationists have kept out of the debate, or at least not voiced strong opinions either way.
But earlier this year, the story of the thylacine took a different turn. Barry Brook, a conservation biologist at the University of Tasmania, pre-published a paper on the marsupial, in which he analysed more than 1,200 sightings and other records dating from 1910 to the present day. He assigned each record a rating from one to five, depending on how likely he thought it was to be true, taking into account how far away the animal was said to have been, how long it was observed for and the professional expertise of the witness or witnesses. If there was more than one, that increased the score.
Brook fed these assessments into a computer model to estimate when the thylacine was likely to have gone extinct. The results sent shockwaves through the wildlife conservation establishment.
“Contrary to expectations, the inferred extinction window is wide and relatively recent, spanning from the 1980s to the present day, with extinction most likely in the late 1990s or early 2000s,” he reported. “While improbable, the aggregate data and modelling suggest some chance of ongoing persistence in the remote wilderness of the island.”
In other words, the thylacine either died out only two decades ago or – astonishingly – still persists.
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